SOCIALISM WILL BE FREE, OR IT WILL NOT BE AT ALL!
Image showing CNT aligned militia members during Spanish Revolution. Image also depicts the classic "red wedge" image of the Russian Revolution.
An Intro to Libertarian Socialism
By Arthur Pye
Socialism is officially a buzzword again. According to a recent poll, 44% of U.S. millennials “prefer socialism to capitalism”, and even mainstream Democrats are starting to call themselves socialist. As one headline put it: “Socialism is so hot right now.” Used to describe everything from Bernie Sanders to Stalinist Russia, there are few words which inspire such varied and contradictory meanings. Like most buzzwords, socialism’s true meaning has been obscured by its popularity.
But what does socialism actually mean, and what does it look like in practice?
At its core, socialism is the idea that resources and institutions in society should be managed democratically by the community as a whole. Whereas under capitalism, economic and political power is concentrated in the hands of the rich, socialists fight for a society in which the means of producing and distributing goods and services are held in common through the democratic self-management of workplaces and communities.
This article will make the case that libertarian socialism represents the most thorough and consistent embodiment of core socialist principles. In essence, libertarian socialism is a politics of freedom and collective self-determination, realized through a revolutionary struggle against capitalism, state power and social oppression in all its forms.
minime » Sat May 05, 2018 7:00 pm wrote:
From the OP...A couple hundred organizers met yesterday to discuss ways in which to build forward taking the people power approach over the strictly electoral approach. To organize patrols to mobilize against deportation dragnets; to conduct anti-catcalling / anti-harassment / anti-assault patrols; to teach english classes to immigrants for free; to organize against police brutality, the war on drugs (including heroin and methamphetamines), and the carceral state; to unite labor unions and bring them back into their older, more radical leftist political spaces; to create our own media; to organize the students who for the first time have a more favorable opinion of socialism than of capitalism; to strike; to run for local office; and to protest.
I assume Luther meant a general strike. Otherwise it would have no effect.
JackRiddler » Fri Jul 20, 2018 4:28 pm wrote:
Total crap, this article is a leftier-than-thou variation on the ways the right and others strawman an undefined and imagined "left." It's so easy when one does not define the target or address any specific person, group, idea or movement, whatsoever. By what indicator is her "left" on the decline, defeated, and pretty much going Nazi? Never mind! Who are these leftists capitulating to the populist right wing, adopting its rhetoric? Only a single human being is referred to here: a child actor, quoting the words of his movie character in a lame quip at the end.
In the 1990s, I was part of several struggles to push these people out of Gothic and neo-pagan subculture.
War, Imperialism, and Class Polarization on a Global Scale
From East Asia to the Middle East and from South Africa to Europe
by Kevin Anderson July 20, 2018
Adapted from a presentation to the Chicago Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, July 13, 2018.
Today’s Nuclear World, Capital, and the State
In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved their famous “Doomsday Clock” on the danger of nuclear holocaust to “two minutes to midnight--the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday, and as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War.” This resulted, they wrote, primarily from Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” against North Korea and his vow to upend the Iran nuclear pact, and also from North Korea’s continuing weapons tests and “Russia’s deployment of a new ground-launched cruise missile” (“It is 2 minutes to midnight: 2018 Doomsday Clock Statement,” Jan. 25, 2018). Even after tensions eased with North Korea, the administration continued plans for an estimated $2 trillion buildup of US nuclear weapons. While some of this began under Obama, according to arms control expert Lawrence Wittner, Trump's escalation includes plans for “low-yield” nukes that the military could use under a new “nuclear posture” that “lowers the official threshold for use of U.S. nuclear weapons,” allowing the military to “employ them in response to non-nuclear attacks upon civilians and infrastructure, including cyberattacks” (“Trump’s Getting Us Ready to Fight a Nuclear War,” History News Network 6/18/18). Related to this is a massive buildup of US naval forces in what the Pentagon is suddenly calling the “Indo-Pacific,” and which is clearly aimed China as a rising power (see “Tomgram: Michael Klare, Is a War with China on the Horizon? TomDispatch6/19/18)
This brought to mind the sixtieth anniversary of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, first published in 1958 during the most fraught days of the Cold War, when threats of nuclear annihilation filled the discourse and Marxism had to be reconceptualized for our time as Marxist-Humanism. One of the book’s greatest achievements was its development of the theory of totalitarian state-capitalism for the nuclear age, in terms of the Hegelian absolute, of life “in an age of absolutes, on the threshold of absolute freedom out of the struggle against absolute tyranny” (p. 24). Nothing signified the absolute development of the contradictions of capitalism more than nuclear weapons, which threatened, then as now, to wipe humanity off the face of the earth at the same time that new, humanist liberation movements were developing everywhere, from civil rights, to African liberation, to the peace movement itself.
Just as the Great Recession a decade ago bared the danger of outright systemic collapse after decades of complacency about the underlying stability of the capitalist system, Trump’s wild nuclear threats last fall laid bare the fact that we are still in the nuclear age, wherein a single leader can order mass destruction far beyond anything even Hitler carried out.
Since those wild threats of last year, Trump has held his photo op with Kim Jong-un, but who besides his apologists believes that peace is at hand on the Korean peninsula and in the region? At the same time, the Trump administration continues to move closer toward war with Iran, continues to support Saudi Arabia’s murderous war on Yemen, while accelerating its war at home against immigrants by forcibly separating thousands of children from their parents in a policy reminiscent of slavery or the Nazi concentration camps.
All this thrashing about is no sign of US strength, as Trump’s supporters would have it, for the ascendancy of such a retrogressive figure to the top of the political system signals instead the first modern democracy’s degeneration toward corruption and barbarism, that is, toward fascism. Fortunately for us, Trump may have come to power too early. Hard-won democratic institutions and norms, though attenuated by decades of imperialist war abroad, political opportunism, and rampant economic inequality at home, still stand in his way at a time when we are also experiencing levels of mass mobilization for radical change not seen in decades.
Underlying all this is the US’s economic decline relative to rising powers, especially China, and US failure to provide any kind of secure economic existence for the majority of its people. To give one shocking example, as the World Health Organization reported on May 30, “China has overtaken the United States in healthy life expectancy at birth” (Reuters, “China overtakes U.S. for healthy lifespan: WHO data” 5/30/18)
To be sure, Russia and especially the US remain the world’s most important nuclear powers, with the arms trade another area in which they are still the global hegemons. However, if present trends continue, the US will be surpassed by China in these spheres as well, just as the US surpassed Britain and Germany a century ago. For as Marx wrote in his 1880-82 Ethnological Notebooks:
“The seemingly supreme independent existence of the state itself is only an illusion, since the state in all its forms is only an excrescence of society. Just as the state only appears at a certain stage of social development, the state will also disappear when society reaches a stage of development that until now it has not reached... fundamental error… that political superiority, whatever its peculiar shape, and whatever the ensemble of its elements, is taken as something standing over society, resting solely upon itself…. For example, better armaments depend directly on improvements in the means of production….” (Krader edition, pp. 329-30).
Thus, the fundamental economic weakness and stagnation of the US, Russia, Western Europe, and Japan are the most important lens through which to grasp the wild gyrations of Trump and so many other retrogressive developments in these societies. However, the economy is not the only lens. The dimensions of world politics and of social movements of resistance cannot be reduced to underlying economic circumstances, with theory as a mere “photocopy” of material reality, as the pre-dialectical Lenin wrote in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism of 1908. For as Marx wrote famously in the introduction to the Grundrisse, certain developments of human creativity can be “out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation” (Nicolaus trans., p. 110). As to the sphere of the state and politics, for long periods, the state can even seem to be suspended above the various social classes. As Marx wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the modern state “restricts, controls, regulates, oversees, and supervises civil life from its most all-encompassing expression to is most insignificant stirrings” (Marx, Later Political Writings, ed. Carver, p. 68).
In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx analyzed Bonapartism, a modern form of authoritarianism with all too much relevance in the era of Trump. He also wrote of history repeating itself, in Hegelian terms, “the first time as high tragedy, the second time as low farce” (p. 31). To be sure, this farce was not mild or gentle, as many lost their lives, were tortured, or forced into exile. What was farcical was the new Bonapartist order’s claim to any kind of legitimacy besides that of the cynical and corrupt exercise of power. This contrasted to the real tragedy of the French Revolution of 1789, where lofty emancipatory aims crashed down into a tyranny of a different sort.
The Trump-Kim Photo Op
The concept of history repeating itself as low farce is instructive in terms of Trump and Kim vs. Nixon’s famous opening to China in the 1970s, to which Trump’s supporters have tried to compare it. The Nixon-Mao rapprochement was a real opening for US imperialism, which could henceforth play China off against the US’s main rival Russia, all the while seeming to make a move toward peace while also escalating the bombing of Vietnam. And it was a real tragedy for the global left of the time, whether very objectively in how Mao threw his weight against Vietnam and later against the Black liberation movements of Southern Africa, or more subjectively in how China’s rapprochement with Nixon sucked the wind out of the sails of the still large Maoist legions of the New Left and the Black Panthers, leading to a rapid decline of the left at the very time Nixon was being driven out of office after Watergate. Thus, Nixon’s China diplomacy helped extricate the system as a whole from the socio-political crises of the 1960s, not to speak of how it eventually led to the massive profits global capital accumulated on the backs of Chinese workers.
While the bumbling Trump’s North Korea visit is an example of low farce, the photo op with Kim Jong-un has at least temporarily lessened nuclear tensions in East Asia, no small thing given Trump's 2017 threats of outright nuclear war. And here the pressure of the South Korean people must be acknowledged in helping to bring the region back from the brink.
But it will also allow Trump to concentrate on warmongering against Iran and most of all, his war on the American people. To be sure, Trump has zig-zagged chaotically over the past 18 months, from speaking of “fire and fury” to annihilate N. Korea in a nuclear attack, to the current charm offensive.
Nonetheless, three large continuities can also be discerned:
1. Disdain for other liberal democracies -- Western Europe, Japan, Canada -- as seen in the blowup at the G7 meeting. This is in keeping with his own authoritarian politics and with his tilt away from neoliberal free trade.
2. Affinity not for dictators in general, but for Putin in particular, and those others, from Duterte in Philippines to Orban in Hungary, who exhibit clear fascist tendencies. This is not some idiosyncrasy of Trump, but part of a global trend of the right and far right gravitating toward Russia under Putin. It can be seen in Orban’s Hungary, Italy’s new nationalist government, in France’s far right and mainstream conservatives, and in Bavaria’s Christian Social Union in Germany. This explains why there has been so little resistance to Trump’s pro-Russia stance from the Republican party in the US, which is undergoing before our eyes a similar evolution.
3. A politics of distraction, scandal, and polarization along racist, xenophobic, and misogynist lines that covers over the deep economic malaise underneath a slightly growing economy wracked by unprecedented inequality and tepid profit rates.
And for Kim’s North Korea, there was no talk of any opening in terms of freer expression or action by the Korean people. This is especially true for the North Korean working class, which suffers under the world’s most repressive dictatorship, which allows them to starve as it goes all out for nuclear weapons. What may be on the agenda if the rapprochement holds is the hyper-exploitation of a demographically young labor force by multinational corporations. There are also reports of large unexploited deposits of iron ore and rare earth minerals, crucial for military electronics and communications (Alexandra Stevenson, “What If North Korea Opens Its Economy, Even a Little” NY Times 6/15/18). But if Trump’s erratic moves toward North Korea constitute an attempt to stave off the rise of China in the region, such a relatively minor event will not alter very much the tectonic plates of global economic and political trends.
Nor should we let down our guard concerning the continuing danger of nuclear war in the region. If Trump thinks that North Korea will actually give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a few small gestures like cancelling war games, he is sorely mistaken. For unless the US decides, at least implicitly, to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, no resolution is in sight. And North Korea’s holding onto its nuclear weapons could easily lead to greater militarization by a Japanese government that is already moving in that direction.
The Better to Attack Iran?
Trump was elected on a platform of military confrontation with Iran, in this case a policy that “mainstream” Republicans like John McCain (“bomb bomb Iran”) share with our demagogic president. Trump abrogated the Iran nuclear agreement on May 8 and has appointed ultra-hawk and Iranophobe John Bolton National Security Adviser. One is tempted to conclude that Trump has feinted peace toward North Korea the better to plan an outright war on Iran. Whether the US attack comes sooner, later, or not at all, Trump has ratcheted up sanctions on Iran and is pressuring
Western European governments and firms also to cut off Iran. So far, European political leaders have held out, but it is unclear if they can or will apply sufficient economic pressure on Europe-based corporations to force them to keep up their economic relations with Iran in the face of US threats of secondary sanctions.
At the same time, Iran is seething with internal unrest, especially since the street uprisings of last winter when government buildings were burned and crowds shouted “Death to the Dictator.” Women’s protests over compulsory head covering have also continued, but a harsh crackdown has targeted even their lawyers in recent weeks. A steep currency collapse has only heightened social tensions.
Some Iranians believe that they can use Trump’s hostility to the regime to help them overthrow it. This is illusory, as it is likely that Trump’s threats will trigger a nationalist backlash in defense of the homeland. This happened when the US encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980, and some oppositionists discredited themselves permanently by allying with Saddam.
Elsewhere in the Middle East: War and Counterrevolution
As we meet today, the Syrian civil war has been going on for seven years. The world has watched passively, or worse, aided the Assad regime as it has massacred 500,000 of its own people and created 13 million internal or external refugees, in other words, a majority of the prewar population of 22 million (Phillip O’Connor, “Most displaced Syrians are in the Middle East, and about a million are in Europe,” PEW Research Center, Jan. 29, 2018).
With strong support from Russia, the Assad regime has retaken Deraa, the city where the uprising began, creating an additional 320,000 refugees stuck in a burning desert at the border with Israel and Jordan, neither of which are admitting them. It is becoming increasingly clear that Assad plans to change the demographic makeup of the country by preventing most of the 13 million refugees from returning, thus tilting the makeup of the population away from Sunni Arabs (75% of the prewar total) toward Christians (8%) and his own Alawite sect (11%). This is seen in the April 2018 Law No. 10, which allows the regime to confiscate land, homes, and crops of “absentees,” and which has already begun to be applied in areas of Damascus and in some rural areas as well (“The Regime Begins to Reap the Rewards of Law No. 10, Syrian Observer, June 19, 2018). At the same time, some remnants of the 2011 revolution are still holding out, as are the leftist-oriented Syrian Kurds. Throughout the civil war, Russia, Iran, and their Shia militia allies like Hezbollah have taken part in war crimes on a massive scale, while the US and Western Europe have wrung their hands while failing even to exert serious pressure on Assad and his allies. Nothing better reveals the fact that there are several forms of imperialism and subimperialism, not just ones emanating from the US and Western Europe. The war has also revealed the ultimate similarity of aims of all these powers, none of which have wanted to see the actual dismantling of the Assad regime. Syria will continue to test the left, as seen in the walkout at the Left Forum in New York in June over their slating of Assad apologist and Green Party leader Ajamu Baraka as a keynote speaker, a walkout in which I was proud to have participated.
Notes on the Party, Reform, Revolution and the Myth of Spontaneity in Rosa Luxemburg
by Michael Hirsch July 16, 2018
This presentation was given at the June 30, 2018, DSA Lower Manhattan Branch meeting/picnic.
When I was in college and the Vietnam War was raging, I was president of the campus’s SDS chapter. I remember lunching with the head of our local Young Democrats. He was a decent enough liberal who also opposed the war but told me he could never be a radical because he didn’t believe in class struggle. I told him it was less a matter of what he and I believed than in what leading sections of the ruling class thought and did.
Jump ahead to today and the Supreme Court has just put the final nail in the coffin of any tolerance for labor unions no matter how servile or housebroken with its decision in the Janus Case. Add to that the Trump administration’s war on public education, its brutality toward refugee asylum seekers and the high likelihood of another financial bubble explosion—all of which means the still largely one-sided class war is gathering strength.
It’s also a good time at least for we precious few socialists to revisit the martyred revolutionary Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg. In the ten minutes I have, consider this the Tweet version of her importance to American radicals.
Rosa Luxemburg is thought of, her publisher’s blurb rightly insists, “as one of the most creative writers of modern socialism and the foremost female theoretician of European radicalism.” Her collected works in German total 14 volumes, three-quarters of which have yet to be translated into English, though efforts to do so at Verso Books are ongoing.
Luxemburg has an odd place in the history of the left. Libertarian Marxists see her as the appetizing alternative to dour, dictatorial Lenin. Communists of the Stalin variety saw her as an enemy of the vanguard party. Centrist Social Democrats either thought of her as a dangerous demagogue or at best an irritant. Even revolutionaries who adored Luxemburg used to either joke or not about DSA—this is a story I got from DSA co-founder Bogdan Denitch—that they couldn’t or wouldn’t join DSA because “you people killed Rosa Luxemburg.”
That was a reference to the German right-wing Social Democrats’ likely collusion with the proto-fascist Freikorps in the murder of Luxemburg in January 1919 at the age of 47, just days after her Spartakusbund, a radical faction of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), quit the SPD and changed its name to the German Communist Party (KPD).
Lenin, her supposed antipode and bête noir, had deep respect, calling her “an eagle.”
I believe the left, historically, whether friend or foe, exaggerates their differences, ignoring the context in which they worked and giving each one’s ideas a transhistoric importance—Luxemburg as the inveterate democrat and Lenin the scheming organization man. They had differences, sure—who wouldn’t—but those are caricatures either of them would and did reject.
As I say, much of the differences between Luxemberg and Lenin are exaggerated, due more to conditions prevalent in their respective countries. Lenin was forced by circumstances to lead an illegal, underground and tightly ideological party tailored to a despotic, backward, absolutist feudal state with no real right-wing socialist current to contend with.
Luxemburg for her part pushed for a radical politics in a legal, mass, multi-tendency party run by full-time bureaucrats and conservatized labor leaders in a largely democratic, highly industrialized western nation.
There was no huge gulf between Luxemburg and Lenin, I believe, but comradely differences based on history and place. Sadly, too many Leninists insisted that Luxemburg gave short shrift to organization, with her allegedly believing instead in spontaneity by masses of workers. In fact she did believe in organization. Her writings on Poland and the need for a disciplined party even rivaled Lenin’s, given repressive conditions in Poland.
Just a side note on the sin of spontaneity: As a veteran socialist once told me about what the notion really connotes, “spontaneity means somebody else did the organizing.” Much truth there.
What Luxemburg could not do was build a united radical opposition to the revisionist, drearily reform-only-minded trend in the SPD. Unlike Lenin, she spent much of World War One in prison. Released after the armistice, she was murdered just months later, her last days no career path for building a democratic, mass party.
For those of us who think reform and revolution are concepts tied at the hip, Luxemburg is likely the most important Marxist to speak about politics as practiced in Western democratic societies, and that includes even Antonio Gramsci. I won’t bury Lenin, but I do think we as western radicals have more to learn from Red Rosa than from Vladimir, particularly in her invocation of workers' councils (just as Lenin did) and in the value of mass strikes, themselves educational opportunities that go way beyond what DSAers today do in trainings, as valuable as trainings are.
So what does she say about reform and revolution, today’s topic. The key essay is her Social Reform or Revolution, a response to Eduard Bernstein, a lukewarm leading comrade who argued that capitalism itself was moving inexorably toward increased socialization and that all that socialists needed to do was win government power through elections and pass enabling legislation. As Bernstein wrote in his Evolutionary Socialism, “The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.”
That distinction was anathema to Luxemburg, who disparaged his view as no less than raising “the question of the petty bourgeois or proletarian character of the labor movement.”
In a lot of ways Bernstein’s epigram encapsulates traditional western liberalism; that is, the idea that capitalism per se is not the problem but that disparities in great wealth are, and that a democratic society would offer remediation and justice to the poor. Electing left-liberals and safeguarding unions alone would tamp down injustices, while capital’s own development through credit, cartels and advanced forms of communication would stabilize capitalism, socialize it of necessity and in itself create a desirable social peace.
I can’t in the time remaining recreate how Luxemburg demolishes that rubbish, except to say that she isolates each of these phenomena as critical factors leading to crisis, not stability. Rather than a gradual introduction of socialism, the logic of capitalism would lead to collapse, or, as she put it, exacerbate class struggle that would mean “bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”
Has anything changed? In her time, as she wrote “trade union action is reduced of necessity to the simple defense of already existing gains,” while “the so-called social reforms are enacted in the interest of capital.”
Think this week’s horrific Janus Supreme Court decision, or the last time federal legislation favored workers, which was the the Occupational Health and Safety Act under Richard Nixon.
Note that she does not disparage reforms as such, provided that the struggle for them comes with“a firm and conscious effort for the conquest of political power [which] impregnates the trade union struggle and the work for social reforms. But if this effort is separated from the movement itself and social reforms are made an end in themselves, then such activity does not lead to the final goal of socialism but moves in a completely opposite direction.”
Then she adds perceptively that “as soon as ‘immediate results’ become the principle aim of our activity,’ the clear-cut, irreconcilable point of view, which has meaning only insofar as it proposes to win power, will be found more and more inconvenient.”
What was key to Luxemburg politically was working class political action, though giving it a more expansive definition than electioneering. Her defense of reforms was not based on reforming capitalism for its own sake but in giving masses of working people victories that would encourage them to fight for more.
For her, “what parliamentarism expresses…is capitalist society, that is to say a society in which capitalist interests predominate.”
That was not in contradiction to her 1906 essay on the mass strike, which urged the party to shift its tactical emphasis to action and away from an overindulgence on purely organizational and educational issues. She believed that direct experience in political struggles was more salient and enduring than lessons learned through speeches and publications.
Let me end on this note: would that the level of class struggle in the US today allowed for an emphasis on mass strikes and workplace militancy. For the left, she urged, as one writer put it, “promoting mass actions and—in the process of the struggle itself—giving them leadership and organization.”
Then we wouldn’t just be celebrating the victory of an isolated handful of insurgents, such as DSA’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but a mass movement making history.
Podcast: What will it take to stop Trump?
In Episode 14 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg notes the national protest wave that brought down president Park Geun-Hye in South Korea last December, and asks why Americans can't similarly rise to the occassion and launch a mass militant movement to remove Donald Trump. Given this extreme emergency—the detention gulag now coming into place, with undocumented migrants the "test population" for domestic fascism—we should be mobilizing in our millions. Weinberg identifies two significant obstacles to unity: 1. The fundamental split in the left over the whole question of Russia and its electoral meddling; and 2. The phenomenon of party parasitism, with both the Democrats and sectarian-left factions seeking to exploit popular movements to advance their own power. He concludes by asking whether social media can empower us to sidestep the Dems and the alphabet-soup factions alike and work rapidly and efficiently to build a leaderless, broad-based, intransigent movement around the aim of removing Trump.
Struggles for Justice in Syria and Palestine
Posted on 31/07/2018
AntiNote: On 23 July 2018, Palestinian-American activist Malak Shahin (Students for Justice in Palestine – University of Minnesota) and Syrian-American activist Ramah Kudaimi (US Campaign for Palestinian Rights) spoke to an audience of around fifty people at a Minneapolis bookstore about struggles for justice in Syria and Palestine.
Comparing and contrasting these struggles, they shared a broader discussion of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism, and emphasized the need for connecting resistance movements from below along precisely these vectors, to build networks of practical solidarity locally and globally.
Full video of the event at the bottom of this post.
Malak Shahin: The hard thing about comparing this stuff is that I don’t always know where people are in their education. How many of you know what Zionism is? How many of you know what the Nakba is, 1948? Okay, a good number of you. I’ll start by talking about both of these things and then skip forward a little bit; I won’t go through all the history.
When we talk about Zionism, we’re talking about modern political Zionism. There are different strains of Zionism that started way back when they were first talking about it. A Jewish person would be better to talk about that, because I don’t know all of the different strains of Zionism. But when we’re talking about Zionism now, it’s modern political Zionism; the founding father is considered to be Theodor Herzl, and he defines Zionism as a colonial idea. He approached Cecil Rhodes, the person who colonized south Africa—he’d recently colonized the territory of the Shona people as Rhodesia. “You are being invited to help make history,” Theodor Herzl said in a letter to Rhodes. “It doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen but Jews … How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.”
In understanding the relationship between Israel and the West in general, it’s important to look at the roots of it. It was a continuation of European colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East and Africa at the time. One of the other places that Zionists thought of making their homeland was Uganda, and also Argentina. But they chose Palestine for pretty obvious reasons.
Herzl looked at Israel as “a state that would constitute for Europe and Palestine part of the wall against Asia and serve as a vanguard of civilization against barbarism.” Let’s think about that when we think about how Israel is portrayed in the news as the “only democracy in the Middle East,” and how Palestinians are portrayed as backwards, with all of these Orientalist and Islamophobic stereotypes that are hammered away on whenever Palestinians are mentioned in mainstream news (which isn’t often unless they want to blame us for terrorism). We’re carrying this long legacy of colonialism, talking about indigenous people as savages and as barbaric. That is really important to understanding the roots of Israel, because it is a violent settler-colonial project. Israel and America have a special relationship partly because they have these shared values—we have to look at the fact that they are both violent, genocidal settler-colonial states, and they continue to be, to this day. They continue to inflict violence all over the world.
When the state of Israel was created officially in 1948, that was when the Nakba happened—nakba means catastrophe in Arabic; this refers to the mass expulsion of Palestinians. Seventy-eight percent of Palestine came under Israeli control. The other twenty-two percent was divided into the West Bank, which was ruled over by Jordan until ’67, and Gaza, which was ruled over by Egypt. Around one million Palestinians became refugees by Zionist forces, and this is not to mention the countless Palestinians who were killed. At least two dozen massacres of Palestinian civilians by Zionist and Israeli forces played a crucial role in the mass flight of Palestinians from their homes.
A lot of the Palestinians who left, left everything behind, because they assumed they would come back when the war was over. A lot of older Palestinians still have the keys to their original houses, because they assumed they would come back. It’s become the symbol of return. The right of return is a really important part of Palestinian advocacy.
These numbers are from the Institute for Middle East Understanding: more than four hundred was the number of Palestinian cities and towns systematically destroyed by Zionist forces and repopulated with Jews between 1948 and 1950. Approximately four million—4,244,776—is the number of acres of Palestinian land expropriated by Israel during and immediately following its creation in 1948. So this was a huge loss for Palestinians, and more than one million Palestinians became refugees. Today there are around seven million Palestinians living in diaspora, and the diaspora includes Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq; there are Palestinians living in the Gulf, there are Palestinians living in America. We’re literally everywhere, and that’s because of the fact that we’re not allowed to go back home, from the Nakba.
So that’s some background to the conflict—I don’t even like calling it a conflict, because it’s not accurate. But I want to talk more about what’s going on today, and the ways that we can all help and support local activists.
I just graduated, but I was a part of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Minnesota. We’ve done two divestment campaigns, both successful. The last one was a referendum in which we asked the university to divest from corporations that are complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, corporations that are establishing and maintaining private prisons and immigrant detention centers, and also corporations that violate indigenous sovereignty.
These issues are very much connected. Like I said before, when we look at the roots of Zionism, it’s very much a European colonial construct. For us as activists and as people who are educating people on what Palestine is and what Palestine means and what the Palestinian cause is, it’s very important to be able to connect it to these issues. When you connect them, it drives it home for people. We say that what was happening in Palestine is what was happening in Standing Rock. What was happening in Standing Rock was an issue of indigenous sovereignty, just as much as it was an environmental issue. That’s why we use the terminology of indigenous sovereignty. At first we were considering talking about environmental degradation and linking it to indigenous sovereignty, but the fact of the matter is, people don’t get that. We have to talk about indigenous sovereignty in itself. We have to recognize that we are on stolen land right now. People don’t see that, so we have to make those connections. As indigenous peoples globally, we need to be able to link up and talk about how Israel and America continue to hurt indigenous people globally, the same in Palestine as in North America (Turtle Island).
One thing I recently learned is that Israel armed and trained Guatemalan soldiers when they were committing the genocide in the eighties against the Mayan people. It’s things like that where you learn: that makes sense, but it’s so shitty that people don’t know it. Especially in the way that Israelis like to self-Orientalize themselves and talk about how they’re indigenous to the land—that goes back to the claim that Israel-Palestine is a conflict that has been raging for two thousand years between Muslims and Jews and they can never get along. It’s just a way of legitimizing their claim on the land. Think about how, in the post-9/11 era, in the War on Terrorism, framing Israel-Palestine as a Jews versus Muslims thing always frames the Muslims as the bad guys, always makes Palestinians look like we’re bad, we’re the terrorists. It also ignores the fact that there are Palestinian Jewish people, and there are Palestinian Christians, who are also being persecuted. So we have to be very firm with how we frame things. That was something that we were really trying to do with UMN Divest.
We were looking at the prison-industrial complex and connecting that to Palestine, and that is something that needs to be done more often. Right now, although people are paying a little more attention to what’s happening with immigrant detention centers, people are still asking the wrong things, because they just want people to be detained together instead of being torn apart. But they shouldn’t be being detained at all. These are things that are really difficult to talk about for people, because they don’t see how a country in the Middle East is connected to the prison-industrial complex in America.
By focusing on corporations, which is what we’re doing through the divestment campaign, we’re asking the university to take out its investments in funds that include corporations like G4S. G4S is a British security company, and they’ve been really shitty everywhere. They were at Standing Rock, too; they had the dogs, if you saw the pictures of dogs attacking indigenous water protectors. They were also in Israeli prisons. There were rumors that they were leaving Israel, or they said they were going to pull out (because of BDS pressure—they won’t admit it, but it is). They also do deportations. There was an incident where an immigrant from Nigeria was being deported from England and died while in G4S custody, because G4S uses too much force.
Another company that is involved with private prisons (as well as regular prisons) is Raytheon, the defense contracting company, the world’s largest producer of missiles. They rely on prison labor to produce weapons, and their weapons are also used against prisoners in the LA county jail—these weapons weren’t accepted by the US military for contracts, so they were used by the LA county jail, on prisoners.
Those are the kinds of things that our divestment campaign was looking at, and the kinds of things that BDS targets. As far as violating indigenous sovereignty, that was once again G4S, who were up in Standing Rock. That one can go even broader, because there are so many companies that are violating indigenous sovereignty continually. But we focused on G4S, Raytheon, and Elbit Systems. Elbit Systems built the apartheid wall in Palestine. If you don’t know, there is a really long wall that Israel built around settlements and encroaching on Palestinian land. Israeli settlements are little colonies that they have in the West Bank, and Elbit Systems are the ones who are behind this wall, which is something like eight times as big as the Berlin wall. They are also a company that is behind US-Mexico border security. Once again, there are different connections around how borders are violent colonial spaces, and Elbit Systems is responsible for that; that’s why they were one of our targets.
We also had Boeing. They manufacture aircraft and weapons that supply the Israeli military. Their weapons were used against civilians in Gaza in 2014; they’re likely being used against civilians in Gaza right now. After 2014 they received an $82 million contract to continue supplying bomb guidance systems to the Israeli military.
Those are things that our university is likely invested in through all these different funds, and through our divestment campaign we were asking the university to not be invested in them. The hard thing about that is that these companies are shitty regardless. For me, if G4S pulls out of Israel, it’s not like G4S is suddenly an ethical company. I still don’t want us to be invested in it. It’s really difficult sometimes when we’re running campaigns like this one, because nothing is going to make investing in a weapons corporation okay; just because their products aren’t being used against my people, they’re being used against some people. The fact that we were connecting all these different causes builds the foundation for us to be able to push for more radical demands in the future.
Our first divestment campaign was similar. It was a referendum that everyone could vote on. It was a resolution from student government, but everybody had the ability to say yes or no. BDS, for the past thirteen years (since 2005), has been campaigning to get people of the international community to put pressure on Israel to abide by human rights law. It was called for by Palestinian civil society; hundreds of organizations called for BDS and for people to support it—if you’re for Palestinian self-determination, you have to be for BDS.
It has three main goals: ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands (dismantling the wall, pulling out of the Golan Heights in Syria, pulling out of the West Bank, and pulling out of Gaza, but we’re also talking about ’48 land); recognizing the fundamental right of Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting, and promoting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194. That’s the right of return—think about the symbol of the key, this is the return of millions of Palestinian refugees who are displaced to this day, who are not allowed to go back, who are still in refugee camps in Lebanon, in Jordan, in the West Bank. The right of return is something that you can’t compromise on. That’s a big part of advocating for Palestine. If you don’t recognize the right of return, you don’t recognize Palestinian self-determination.
BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Boycotting is more on the individual level; it’s me not buying Sabra hummus because I have morals. Divestment means asking institutions like the University of Minnesota, or churches, to take out investments they may have in corporations such as Raytheon, G4S, etcetera. Sanctions are more on the government level, leading up to the point where, internationally, states are actually holding Israel accountable and placing sanctions against Israel until it abides by international law. Those are the three different levels; boycott and divestment are where we have the most power, but it’s building up to sanctions.
The movement for BDS in South Africa was done through young individuals on college campuses making their universities listen through really radical direct actions. On the University of Minnesota campus, they shut down Board of Regents meetings for eleven years. They would take over Morrill Hall, which is the administration building. There were all these different things that they did; it’s a matter of escalation. By the time universities were starting to divest all over the country, people were becoming very aware of what South Africa was and what South Africa was doing, and why Apartheid was bad. It got to the point where the US congress was able to override Reagan’s veto and pass sanctions against South Africa.
It ended Apartheid, essentially. That’s not to say that black South Africans didn’t have a huge role in that, and it’s not to overstate what role Americans have, but as people in America we are in a unique role to be able to put pressure on the United States and on Israel, because the United States has that special relationship. That’s why BDS is really important, and I think if you don’t support BDS in some way, I don’t think you really support Palestinian self-determination. Like I said, it was hundreds of Palestinian civil society groups that have called for BDS, and that’s been the most effective way for us to make change.
Thinking back to our first divestment campaign at the University of Minnesota, the change in how people talked about Palestine and how people understood what we were talking about, comparing 2016 and 2018—it was huge. We have to keep pushing, make sure we’re educating people, make sure we’re making those connections. That means going back and saying what Zionism is and what Israel is doing and why it’s wrong, and what a Palestinian is—some people don’t know what that is. It’s being able to make those connections and say that Israel was involved in the 1980s with the genocide of Mayans in Guatemala, and they were able to get those contracts by basically selling what they’re doing with their own occupation. I was reading an article on Electronic Intifada about how they basically “palestinianized” the Mayan people—I’m not sure that’s great terminology—by using the same tactics.
That’s what they do. They export their tactics. Again, let’s go back to the prison-industrial complex and how Israel exports its violent tactics to the United States by having these police exchanges. That’s something you can learn more about from Jewish Voice for Peace; they’re doing a campaign called Deadly Exchange, to stop police exchanges from happening.
That’s the biggest thing that I want to drive home: really talking about those connections. The biggest difference between 2016 and 2018 was being able to say that Palestinians are very similar to indigenous people here, because we go through similar struggles. Being able to connect with those people and also connect with people who are supportive of indigenous struggles, they’ll have to realize the cognitive dissonance of being able to support people standing up against Line 3 but not Palestinians who are marching for the right to return or who are protesting Israeli settlements. Pushing that is really important.
Ramah Kudaimi: I want to shout out you students; I’m a BDS organizer, and what students have been able to accomplish is what helps the rest of us do our BDS work, so it’s very inspiring and an honor to sit alongside students and hear about the ins and outs. The opposition is so afraid of student organizing that Sheldon Adelson is pouring in millions of dollars every single year to fight back against students’ BDS activism.
I’m pretty sure you all don’t have anywhere near that amount of money.
MS: Donate to SJP.
RK: Definitely donate to SJP.
Thank you all for coming tonight, and thank you to CISPOS for organizing this event. I’m a Syrian-American activist who does organizing for Palestinian rights as my full-time work, so when I get a chance to talk about freedom and justice for both Palestine and Syria, for Palestinians and Syrians, it’s very special.
Earlier this month, on July 12, forces loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad raised their flag over Dera’a, which is the city that was the birthplace of the 2011 Syrian uprising and revolution for justice and dignity. While so much of the news that we hear about Syria these days is unfortunately about violence, about massacres, about airstrikes, today what I really want to focus on is the people. I want to focus on their revolution, so that that part of the story of Syria, the one that is really inspiring and beautiful and heartwarming, doesn’t get lost in all the other horrible things happening.
In the most recent history, that story starts in Dera’a. In March of 2011, some youth in Dera’a painted slogans demanding freedom on the walls of their city. They were inspired by what was happening back then all across the region. In December 2010, the people of Tunisia had taken to the streets demanding the fall of their regime after a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his mistreatment by police. The protests continued for weeks and ended up forcing then-dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee, after he had been in power for twenty-four years. The call for the fall of regimes spread across the region—to Egypt, to Libya, to Yemen, to Bahrain, and even Iraq, where people had obviously been fighting American military occupation still at that point.
People were inspired, encouraged. They saw videos coming out from each country, and were circulating videos and chants, and people would think, well, if they’re out there in the street there, why can’t we do it here as well? I was in grad school in 2010 and the beginning of 2011 when all of this was happening, and I remember I—and a lot of my friends—would wake up really early in the morning every day for months, following the videos. Protests would start around noontime, so that would be like five o’clock in the morning. I don’t know how anyone got any work done, because that’s all we were doing, just watching videos from Tahrir Square and waiting to see what was going to happen. There was such a feeling of excitement and hope. We were witnessing a breakthrough in a region that had suffered for so long the impacts of British and French colonialism, followed by dictatorship. Its peoples’ needs and dreams were always secondary to the needs and interests of the United States and Israel, and of course the destruction that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq wrought was still having reverberations across the region at that point. People were really forced to think: we have to either accept living under dictatorships, or we’re going to have to accept living under US bombs and US occupation.
Watching the bravery of the millions of people taking to the streets in January and February 2011, many people would turn to me and ask, Is Syria next? And honestly I would say no. I was like, no, there’s no way this would happen in Syria! This was mostly based on how strong a grip I knew the Assad regime had on the country. The current president Bashar al-Assad inherited power after his father Hafez died in 2000. Hafez had ruled the country since 1970, and the Assad regime is frankly one of the most brutal regimes in the region—which is saying a lot. There are people who dream about getting a Nobel Peace Prize; I think these regimes think about getting a Nobel Prize in cruelty and brutality.
I grew up in the United States, but I would go to Syria often. I knew that when I would visit, I shouldn’t be discussing anything political—and no one ever actually explicitly told me that. I think back: did my parents ever sit me down to have that discussion with me? They didn’t. I don’t recall it at all. It’s just something I felt as a kid, to see how fearful people were, seeing how adults around you would just not say anything that would be perceived as critical of the regime.
My parents grew up in Damascus, but my mom’s family is from Hama, where in 1982 Hafez al-Assad killed an estimated forty thousand people to repress efforts to resist his regime. No one ever talked about that massacre in my family, but everyone knew about it and feared that the same would happen again if anyone ever dared rise up. Whereas in Egypt and Tunisia there was some freedom of the press and some space for political organizing (not to whitewash those regimes, which were also brutal—and now in Egypt what we see under Sisi is even scarier than what was under Mubarak unfortunately), in Syria there were only state-owned media outlets and only one political party that you were really allowed to join, the Ba’ath party that was in power.
But in March of 2011, the people of Dera’a proved me wrong. Inspired by what they were seeing in neighboring countries, they painted these freedom slogans on the walls of their city. They were quickly arrested by the mukhabarat (the FBI, if you want to relate it to the US—the intelligence services) and tortured. Immediately, protests erupted demanding their release, as well as addressing other grievances such as high rates of unemployment and other socioeconomic issues that people were facing.
The regime quickly reacted with force, and attempted to repress the protests. By this time, March 2011, we should remember that the people of Egypt had ousted Hosni Mubarak—they had succeeded in making him step down after he had been in power for thirty years. That point was also the beginning of NATO intervention in Libya, where people had risen up against Qaddafi’s brutal regime and NATO had decided to intervene due to his brutal response to protests there. The Assad regime was seeing what was happening, and decided they needed to shut things down and quell any further unrest. Protesters were beaten, and met with tear gas, and within a few weeks the regime was sending tanks to escalate violence against its own people.
What the regime failed to understand from the beginning was these protests that were breaking out in a small city like Dera’a (Dera’a is way in the southwest part of the country near the Jordan border, not a major city) couldn’t remain isolated in Dera’a; in the surrounding villages, people heard about what was happening in Dera’a, saw people killed, and were going out in the streets protesting in solidarity with their fellow people.
The grievances held by people and their demands were things felt across the country. There was an issue of stagnating wages as the cost of living had increased sharply over the last few years. Drought was impacting rural areas. The regime’s neoliberal policies meant the slashing of subsidies, and that obviously meant that everything was becoming more expensive.
And of course the regional context—we can never forget the regional context. Unfortunately, because the region is now in such a dark place, we forget what was actually happening in 2011, the beauty of what was happening. While none of the problems that Syrians were facing were new problems, they were seeing what others in the region were doing and what they were able to accomplish just going out in the streets and making their demands, and that gave them hope that they, too, could do the same. If Hosni Mubarak was able to be forced out of power, why not the Assad regime?
Soon the barrier of fear was broken across the country, as protests spread to major cities like Homs and Hama, more towards the center of the country. Protests spread to the Kurdish parts of the country in the northeast (the Kurds were not considered citizens at that time, and the regime at some point all of the sudden said, “Yeah, you’re all citizens now,” as a way to quell the protests there). There were even protests in the capital, Damascus itself. This probably terrified the regime, that people in such close proximity to them were no longer afraid either.
So the regime decided to crack down on protests, and as the crackdown escalated, it became more vicious and more brutal, specifically in April 2011 when they tortured Hamza al-Khateeb, a thirteen-year-old, and returned his tortured body to his family, with his penis cut off. He had cigarette burns all across his body. People know the case of Emmett Till in this country; that’s what it reminded me of. His body was so mutilated that his own family had trouble recognizing him. That pushed people. If this is how cruelly the regime is going to react, there’s no turning back. We have to keep pushing forward. More people came out in the streets.
So much of the coverage today in Syria is about violence, and portrays Syrians as victims with no agency—I really urge us to go back and really watch. Read the stories and watch the videos of the amazing direct action that took place, the amazing unarmed resistance, the amazing civil disobedience, the creativity of the protesters who went out. There were songs and chants that filled the air during the protests. There were massive sit-ins that happened, workers’ strikes that disrupted business as usual. Cartoons were produced, posters. People were making videos and uploading them to YouTube and various social media sites. Protesters would hand dates and flowers to the regime soldiers, encouraging them: “You can come and join us. We want you to be part of our protest. You can be part of us changing our country.” They created new media outlets—which is, again, a huge thing for a country that had nothing outside of state-controlled media. Now for the first time there were independent media spaces. Local councils started popping up all across the country, where people would come together and discuss protest plans and start imagining what the future of their country would look like.
When I watch videos of protests now, seven years later, it’s really hard to digest how the reality in Syria today is so different from what it could have been back in 2011. Many factors led us to what this reality is today. Today, the Assad regime is still in power. He is consolidating his control over previously liberated areas. The entire international community—for years now—has decided we have to keep Assad in power. Now it’s becoming a reality: he’s staying in power, and everyone is getting into the mode of normalizing that fact.
It’s sad. At least five hundred thousand Syrians have been killed—although the UN had this number as the death toll years ago, and they stopped counting. It could easily be double that. Really. There are six million Syrians who are refugees. The idea of Syrians being refugees is a very hard one, because Syria for so long hosted so many of the region’s refugees, whether it was Palestinian refugees or Lebanese refugees or Iraqi refugees—the fact that there are now six million Syrian refugees is a lot to swallow. In addition, there are another six and a half million who are internally displaced, and an unknown number of people—it might be thousands, it might be tens of thousands—in the regime’s torture dungeons and prisons, facing horror there.
Syria had a population of twenty million in 2011. Two thirds of that population have been direct victims of this regime’s war on Syria.
What factors helped get us to these dark days from the beautiful early days of the revolution, when there was so much hope and excitement? There are a couple things I want us to think about. One is going back to 2003 and the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the impact that still has to this day, the sectarianism that it set off, the violence. I’m assuming a lot of you are anti-war activists, and understand: what happened in Iraq was horrible. It was a violent occupation that destroyed a society. Obviously Saddam Hussein was a war criminal—his people would have risen up against him eventually just like people rose up elsewhere—but what the United States did was criminal, and there’s obviously been no accountability whatsoever for what happened.
So that’s part of the picture. Another part of the picture is NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011. Again, that signaled to Assad—and signaled to Assad’s backers, Iran and Russia, that they would need to double down their support. It showed that there might be interest among NATO countries in helping Syrian revolutionaries oust Assad, and that made them very fearful because then they would lose any control that they had in the region.
We’re back to this now; I don’t know if people saw Trump’s tweet about Iran last night. But since the nineties, the United States and Israel have been pushing for war on Iran—and not because they care about the Iranian people. This is about their own “security.” And for Israel, this is a deflection from Palestine. Then there’s the role that Israel played in convincing the US to invade Iraq, with the idea that Iran was next; there are the lies around Iranian nuclear weapons. Bibi Netanyahu, since the nineties, has been claiming that Iran is within two to three years of having a nuclear weapon. It’s a lie, because it’s about deflecting from Palestine and the issue of Palestinian rights.
Slowly, Syria became a global battleground, a battleground of geopolitics. There were forces who wanted to make sure the regime stays in power: that includes Iran, that includes Russia, and that includes Hezbollah (and then there are various militias that Iran would bring into the country; for example, Iran would force Afghan refugees who were living in Iran to go fight in Syria). Then there were the so-called friends of the revolution. So-called friends. No one has the interests of the Syrian people in mind other than the Syrian people themselves. But these “friends” included the United States as well as the various Gulf powers, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar to the UAE, who were always promising a lot more support to the revolution than they actually ever gave—or than they ever really wanted to give—and they were very clear that any support they gave was contingent on their own interests, making sure they controlled whatever the outcome would be.
And then there’s the War on Terror, the War on Terror that George W. Bush launched after 9/11; the first part of that was the invasion and continuing occupation of Afghanistan (we’re now in 2018; seventeen years later the US is still occupying Afghanistan). The War on Terror has become a global war on terror, where any power that wants to can just claim they are fighting terrorism, and everyone says, “Okay! That makes sense.” That’s what Syria has become. It’s become an issue of the War on Terror. The US is “fighting ISIS,” Russia is “fighting ISIS,” Turkey is “fighting Kurdish terrorists.” Everyone is out to ensure that the people they don’t like are labeled as terrorists and that they are able to kill those people as they please.
Then, frankly, there has been international community incompetence. The UN has been unable to do much, because of the veto power of Russia and China; similar to what the US has done with Israel for decades, Russia has protected the Assad regime. And then there is the lack of solidarity beyond the institutions. I work on Palestine, so I don’t have much trust in the UN. But as to what Malak described in terms of BDS and the ability for people worldwide to take action for Palestinian rights: unfortunately we’ve seen a lack of that solidarity in regard to Syria. To be very fair, of course, it took decades to build a solidarity movement in support of Palestinians, so it’s not like it’s going to happen automatically in Syria.
What’s been frustrating about Syria is how people who should get it, don’t get it. The regime claims that it is an anti-imperialist regime, even though this is a pure lie. The regime is one that, for example, was okay with the US invasion of Iraq. It’s a regime that worked with the CIA in its torture and rendition program. They would accept people from the United States that the US government wanted to torture, and they would torture them on behalf of the US government. The CIA was very clear: if you really wanted someone to be tortured, that’s where you would send them. You would send them to Syria. Some people may have followed the case of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, who was wrongly renditioned. The US government thought he was a suspected “terrorist,” sent him to Syria, and he was tortured. Finally they were like, “Oops! We made a mistake,” and our court system didn’t even let him sue the US government. He got some justice from the Canadian government—from the US government, none at all.
There are also the neoliberal policies that I mentioned. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, because they were slashing subsidies and everything was being privatized. How can you be an anti-imperialist when you’re feeding into neoliberal capitalism? That’s the front we’re fighting on. A lot of that has confused people to the point where they actively believe propaganda from the regime, where this is all a Zionist-CIA-Mossad-Google-Turkey-Gulf conspiracy (again, as if the Syrian people have no agency). People literally believe that Syria was a socialist country. “There was free education and free health care!” That’s not socialism, first of all, but the quality of it is another story. It doesn’t matter if you have free health care and free education—and it’s crappy healthcare and crappy education—if you have no political rights whatsoever. There is this idea that if you have some economic rights you can do away with political rights.
Even for people who don’t go to that extreme, who don’t actually believe in the Assad project or the Assad propaganda, there is still an inability to speak out against it, or people say they just don’t know—again, this is because of the effectiveness of the propaganda from the regime, very much supported by Russia. People are paralyzed; they say, “Well, I don’t know what to believe.” For activists who are leftists, who are antiwar, who are used to a binary of imperialism and anti-imperialism (and that binary is the US and everyone else), we seem to have lost our critical thinking skills. It’s like, if you’re against the US, you’re my friend and I won’t speak up against you. Or, I have a duty to speak up about US war crimes and I don’t need to speak up about anyone else. It’s not a very internationalist stance, or how we should be thinking about things. We shouldn’t be limiting our solidarity based on borders.
As a leftist, I think internationalism is a number one priority for all of us. Wherever people are who are oppressed, we shouldn’t be on the side of the oppressor, no matter who’s doing the oppressing.
I’m going to end with a couple more points specifically around Palestine and Syria, and why these two need to be talked about together. It’s very disconcerting to me that we don’t actually talk more about them together; there’s Palestinian activism happening and the whole Palestinian solidarity movement, and then there are folks interested in Syria and the whole Syrian solidarity movement, and rarely do they really interact, even though the countries are right next to each other.
Malak was talking about Zionism and about the impact of Zionism on Palestinians: obviously Palestinians are the first and foremost victims of Zionism—but Zionism’s impact goes beyond that. It goes against the region. It goes against Muslims worldwide: the role Zionism and Zionist institutions play in propagating Islamophobia is huge. As Malak was describing, part of the appeal of Israel is to continue the idea that We Are Like You. “Those are the barbarians, those are the savages, but we are like Europe; we are like the United States; we are civilized.” To continue that myth, they have to continue to push Islamophobic tropes. Again, it’s not just within the Israel lobby and among Zionists; reporters understand that history and they know that they have an in with the United States to continue to do that.
We have to talk about the impact of Zionism beyond just the region itself. Syria has occupied territory: the Golan Heights have been occupied by Israel since 1967. And it’s been the “quietest border” for the Israelis. The Israelis will admit that. The idea that Assad is anti-Zionist and he’s anti-Israel and that’s why Israel wants him gone is a joke. He’s protected Israel. When the regime first sent its tanks to Dera’a, people were mocking him: “The Golan is that way! Why are you sending tanks here? You talk about freeing our land, go actually free it! It’s been occupied since 1967!”
So that’s one point I’ll make. The other point I’ll make is in terms of the specific role of Palestinians in Syria and Palestinian refugees in Syria. There are at least 150,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, all across the country, but most in Yarmouk refugee camp, which is in the suburbs of Damascus and which for many Palestinians was considered the hub of Palestinian diaspora. Palestinian refugees get different rights in different countries; they’re treated the worst in Lebanon; they’re treated the best in Jordan; Syria was in between. They had a few more rights than they had in Lebanon, but they weren’t granted citizenship like they were in Jordan, for example.
The regime likes to talk a lot about how it’s at the forefront of protecting Palestinian rights, and yet—again—this is a farce. This was a farce long before 2011 and the revolution. There was a massacre in 1976 in a refugee camp as part of the Lebanese “war.” A lot of people may know about the Sabra and Shatila massacre that happened in 1982, when Israel allowed extremist phalangist forces to go into Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps and just massacre people. Well, six years earlier there had been a massacre at another Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon called Tel al-Zaatar, and that was a massacre that was facilitated by the Hafez al-Assad regime.
Also, there is a branch of the intelligence forces in Syria called the Palestine Branch, and it is notorious for being the one that engaged in the worst forms of torture. Imagine thinking that you’re honoring Palestine by naming the branch of intelligence that engaged in the worst forms of torture after it.
When the revolution started, Palestinian-Syrian refugees were put in a bind. What do you do? They don’t have anywhere else to go. They’re not allowed to go back to their homeland, as Malak was saying. They are denied their right of return, so it’s very hard. Eventually Palestinian-Syrian refugees—it started early on, and then more and more—rose up. People in Yarmouk rose up. People in different camps rose up and were supporting Syrians in their revolution. It was very powerful and very beautiful.
In May of 2011, the first Nakba Day protests that took place after the revolutions had started, Palestinian refugees in both Lebanon and Syria decided, “You know what? We’re just going to walk home.” So the Great Return March that we’re seeing in Gaza now, of people attempting to do just that—there was a version of that which happened in 2011, of refugees in Lebanon and Syria. They started walking, and they were shot at. And it wasn’t the Israelis shooting at them, it was the Syrian regime and the Lebanese regime.
Again, the idea that Assad is somehow supportive of Palestinians is ridiculous. There have been about three thousand Palestinians killed, many of them under torture. Yarmouk camp has been decimated. The regime first bombed Yarmouk in December of 2012, and then slowly completely put it under siege for years. Again, we know Gaza has been under siege for eleven-plus years. There is another Palestinian population that has been under siege for years, but it’s not by Israel, it’s by the Syrian regime, which claims to be a supporter of the Palestinian people.
Yarmouk had a population of about 150,000. It’s down to maybe ten thousand at this point. These are people who were forced to flee: refugees who now twice have been made refugees. When we talk about Palestine, and how right of return is such a big part of the movement: these are people for whom it is even harder to realize their right of return, because now they are scattered in Europe or in other parts of the country, and facing even worse challenges. Because while Syrian refugees’ services are provided by UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees, Palestinian refugees come under UNRWA, a completely different thing. UNRWA for years as been a way for Israel to get rid of the idea of a Palestinian refugee once and for all. They’ve been pushing to defund UNRWA, and to cut services. For Trump, that’s his biggest thing too: he recently cut a lot of money to UNRWA services. They want to get rid of the idea that there is such thing as a Palestinian refugee.
It’s very important, when we’re talking about Palestine and we’re talking about Syria, to make these connections. There is no way there is going to be freedom for Syria while the Zionist regime exists in the form it does. And there is not going to be liberation of Palestine while not only the Syrian regime but really all the Arab regimes are dirty players working to support each other. We are in a world where all of these regimes are coming together. We’re seeing the rise of fascism across Europe. It’s not coincidence that Netanyahu is best friends with Trump, and it’s not coincidence that Putin goes and talks to Iran and Turkey about Syria—as they are all occupiers of Syria—and then he goes and talks about Syria with Trump and with Israel, who are also occupiers of Syria.
People talk a lot about Syrian sovereignty, and how that’s why we need to support Assad, because he’s protecting Syrian sovereignty. It’s because of Assad that there are now six different countries who are occupying Syria, and Syria as a nation-state really does not exist anymore.
American Dream wrote:It’s because of Assad that there are now six different countries who are occupying Syria
“In the World of Film, We’ve Edited out All Rebellion”
AN INTERVIEW WITH
Boots Riley on communism, Sorry to Bother You, and what kind of political action the present moment demands.
As both a longtime activist and the lead vocalist for the hip-hop group The Coup, Boots Riley is no stranger to politically charged art. But with Sorry to Bother You, Riley has made his first foray into film.
The movie — which Riley both wrote and directed — follows Cassius “Cash” Green, a young black man who makes his way up the ladder at a telemarketing firm by using his “white voice.” At the same time Green is ascending, his fellow telemarketers, fed up with low pay and no benefits, are organizing a union — creating an explosion of collective labor action rarely shown on the silver screen.
While the world of Sorry to Bother You is similar to the one we inhabit, it contains elements of magical realism. In the movie, the company Worry Free promises workers freedom from the worries of unemployment or want of food and shelter by allowing them to sign a lifetime contract. They’re then housed in a prison and receive no wages for their work. In short, slavery. As Riley explains in the following interview, this bending of reality shows “how we will accept anything if it’s packaged in the right way and we don’t think we can do anything about it.”
Sorry to Bother You isn’t just an entertaining, mind-bending film. It’s also one of the best anticapitalist films in recent memory. It’s one of the rare films that meaningfully depicts collective labor struggles. And it doesn’t merely show us what we’ll accept when we think we can’t do anything — it shows us just what we can do to fight capitalist exploitation.
Jacobin recently sat down with Riley in Washington, DC before a screening of Sorry to Bother You to discuss his widely acclaimed film, the role of art in anticapitalist struggles, and what kind of political action the current moment calls for. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve been outspoken in all of your interviews that you are a communist. When Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! referred to you as an “anticapitalist,” you responded, “I’m a communist.” What do you mean when you say you’re a communist, and how is that different from your garden-variety anticapitalist?
In actuality, it’s not. Most people that are seriously calling themselves anticapitalist are usually doing that as some version of anarchist, or something like that. I feel like a lot of the anarchists that would call themselves anticapitalist also might call themselves anarcho-socialist and anarcho-syndicalist. When you talk about what they’re actually saying, the kind of world they want to make [is a communist world].
What is that world, though?
That world, how I’ve come to describe it, is one where the people democratically control the wealth that they create with their labor. What does that mean? Does that mean democracy like you vote on things? Are there meetings? Those are things that will be figured out along the way.
I say communist because that’s really what all those folks are talking about. It’s really a result of anticommunism that people sometimes call themselves anarchists. A lot of people will hear this and be like, “That’s not true.” But it’s a way to say, “I’m not part of those mistakes that happened before.” In reality, we all are part of those mistakes that happened before.
Whether you call yourself a child of that legacy or not, you are. We have to look at those things. So that is why I say “communist,” because the world that even anarchists are saying they want to create is a communist world.
Why Liberals Care About Russia
Liberalism is in crisis.
It started under Obama. Despite opening his administration with broad popularity and the only congressional super-majority in recent memory, Obama’s tenure saw the emergence of mass movements to the Democratic Party’s left, most prominently Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Combined with the lingering echo of the 2008 financial meltdown, that laid the conditions for a Democratic crisis of legitimacy. In 2016, it crystallized through Bernie Sanders challenging Clinton and Trump winning the presidency. The unthinkable had happened. Progressives couldn’t deliver what they promised. So, their credibility vanished.
How did they respond? There’s a logic to the accusations of treason, the saber-rattling, and the conspiracy theories. If you’ve lost your legitimacy, how better to get it back than to set yourself up as the defender of the homeland against a looming foreign menace?
US Perspectives: From one shock to another!
BY OAKLANDSOCIALIST ON AUGUST 2, 2018
That was the least hostile thing said. It was said for all the wrong reasons, not the right ones!
Mueller investigation, Brian Benczkowski and Alfa Bank
A little noted event was the confirmation of Brian Benczkowski as the head of the Justice Department’s criminal investigation department. In that position, Benczkowski is directly over the Mueller probe. Who is this man?
Benczkowski has no experience whatsoever as a criminal prosecutor. What he does have experience in is as a defense attorney for the subjects of white collar crime cases. That, combined with his work as a former chief of staff for Jeff Sessions when Sessions was a US senator. In particular, in his role as criminal defense lawyer, Benczkowski had been hired by Alfa Bank, one of the largest commercial banks in Russia. What is the relevance?
On Oct. 31, 2016, just eight days before the presidential elections, a strange link was reported between computer servers of Alfa and the Trump organization2. Alfa denied any collusion, but interestingly, within days of the report the Trump computer server was shut down. There are some possible explanations of this link, but taken in their totality, it seems highly unlikely that this was not part of the collusion between the Trump campaign and Putin and his cronies. In order to defend itself, Alfa hired an attorney in the United States – none other than Brian Benczkowski! Trump had nominated him back in June of last year, but he wasn’t confirmed until this last June. Under questioning, he promised to recuse himself from any investigation into Alfa Bank, but not into any investigation of Alfa’s parent company.
So, Trump now has a direct ear into exactly what information Mueller is getting and what he is planning. Presumably, as his immediate supervisor, Benckowski would also have the power to fire Mueller, and a campaign towards that end is already under way among Republican congress members.
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